One of my favorite parts of acting is the character development. I love diving into their time period, coming up with backstories, figuring out their relationship with other characters. It's like a scavenger hunt. I scrutinize the text, read reviews and relevant books (when available), and watch YouTube clips. It becomes an obsession. For the four to five months I'm working on a show, I become absorbed in my character's life. I become a part of their world, whether it be modern day Washington Heights, 19th century France, or 20th century London.
Theatre stretches my horizons. It compels me to research historic events that I wouldn't normally, like the June Rebellion for Les Misérables or American immigration for In the Heights. The other day my friend Kevin, who will be playing Marius in the Cape Cod Academy Playhouse revival performance of Les Misérables, explained how he read Homer's The Iliad in high school, and it had no significance to him. It was long, dense, and filled with references he had no desire or reason to figure out. Several years later, he found himself performing the one-man play, An Iliad, and all of a sudden Homer's The Iliad became the most important text in his life for the months he was working on the play. All of a sudden, the references made sense. They had purpose.
I couldn't agree more. One of the coolest parts of theatre for me is it compels me to connect with a time period, character, and place I never would need to otherwise. In history class, I love when we're assigned a personal memoir to read. Having someone's personal account of a historical event gives me a person to connect with, rather than a string of facts. Theatre goes one step further and allows me to be that person. Facts in a text book go over my head, except when I'm researching for a character. When I'm researching for a play, I absorb the information like a sponge. Like Kevin explained, the pieces start to align; the references make sense; the facts have a purpose.
When getting into character, I need to know why my character is feeling the way she is. As I'm preparing for my role, I have conversations out loud with my characters. "Why are you feeling this way? What happened before? What's your motivation?" Through these questions, I get the backstory. Eventually, getting immersed in the time period and place is not a conscious effort for me; it just naturally happens. After all, I'm spending between 10-40 hours a week there.
We are only given one life, but through theatre, I can sample the lives of others. I can time travel. I can be in 1950s America today at the drive-in movie's with a black cow in my hand, and 1970s Argentina tomorrow, addressing the people of Argentina as President Juan Perón's wife. Because of theatre, I have seen the world through the eyes of a lovestruck and naive girl who has never seen any other man but her father (Isabel from Pirates of Penzance); a power-hungry but lonely wizard (Ms. Wiz from The Wiz) ; a bitter street beggar (Les Mis); a prostitute (Les Mis); a wide-eyed revolutionary (Les Mis); an insecure teenager who believes the only way to get through life is with an "I don't give a shit" attitude (Rizzo from Grease); a "failed" neighborhood superstar (Nina from In the Heights); and soon, a young girl balancing adolescent love with the desire to grow up (Wendy from Peter Pan).
Theatre forces me not only to travel, but to see the world through different lenses. So until I am at a point in my life when I can travel the world, I will keep exploring it through theatre.
How do you like to explore the world?